Petite Sirah

By Dan Berger

Politically correct it is not. Exciting as a young wine it rarely is.

But Petite Sirah is one of the few red wines I think of whenever I get a letter such as the one I got a decade ago:

“My daughter was born in 1999, and I wanted to buy a case or two of wine to pour on her 21st birthday,” he wrote. “I was going to buy a Bordeaux or a California Cabernet, but I didn’t want to spend that kind of money…”

Laying down wine for a progeny is a time-honored tradition in England, and has become a popular game with Americans. I have loads of 1978s, 1981s and 1984s for my three kids, and do not regret having bought them, but if I had it to do all over again, I would have done it differently.

And one of the wines I would have looked more at was Petite Sirah. To be sure, this is a rather unheralded grape variety, not only undistinguished but dismissed by most wine lovers as “too tannic,” or “too simple.”

But wine makers love it, and the grape seems to be a sleeper in that it often takes a decade or more before the wine shows any of its true potential.

Aging Petite SirahI first learned this by accident in 1985 when traveling in Monterey County’s Carmel Valley. The only restaurant open late one night was a tiny bistro with a wine list so small it would have fit on a postage stamp. And the only red wine worth drinking was a 12-year-old bottle of Mirassou Petite Sirah.

I didn’t expect much, but to my amazement, it was superb.

Two years later, a group of Sonoma County wine makers staged a tasting of old Petite Sirahs dating back to the 1960s. Again, the wines were startlingly complex and rewarding.

A few months later, I staged a blind tasting of older Petite Sirahs from my own cellar, and the 1971 and 1975

Ridge and Freemark Abbey wines were amazingly superb.

About 1996, I got lucky: a case of assorted Petite Sirahs from the 1970s came up for sale at a Christie’s auction in Los Angeles. I put in a phone bid with a $500 limit, and got the case for $360.

Included were three bottles of 1969 Mount Madonna, two of ’71 Freemark Abbey, two of ’73 Kenwood, and one of ’71 David Bruce. So far, each bottle from that case has proven to be remarkably satisfying.

In 1999, I served two of the bottles, the two Kenwoods, at a dinner party featuring older Burgundies from great vintages of the past. The Petite Sirahs were judged to be absolutely marvelous by all the tasters, and a number of the Burgundies were judged to be odd and musty.

What it is about Petite Sirah that allows it to age so well is anyone’s guess. The grape itself does not have the overt fruitiness of Zinfandel or even Merlot, and it has a layer of tannin that normally makes it seem to be the most astringent red wine you can buy.

Yet, other than Barolo, it is one of the longest-lived of red wines, and a strong candidate to consider when laying away wine for a child’s 21st birthday.

Depending on where it’s grown, the grape has an aroma of black pepper (or, when from really cool climates, dried green pepper). There is also a lively plum and occasional clove note, but normally the wine isn’t over-oaked; no wine maker wants to waste good wood on so modest a grape variety!

This is to its advantage as it ages, since oak doesn’t get in the way of its quest to gain maturity.

The grape has usually been dismissed by those unfamiliar with its ability to age nicely; an example is Jancis Robinson’s dismissal of it in her “Vines, Grapes and Wines” (1986), in which she lists it as a poor-quality (i.e., not distinguished) variety called Durif in France.

Yet she does quote Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards as saying that one sure way to allow a well-made Zinfandel reach 20 years of age is to add a bit of Petite Sirah.

The fact is, many Zinfandel vineyards are really composed of field blends of grapes. One of the most prized has been Petite Sirah because of the deep color it gives to a grape (Zin) that ripens unevenly, and occasionally has a color deficiency.

Some grape growers admit that Petite Sirah makes up a substantial part of their “Zinfandel” vineyards.

And they add that it’s just as well. It is the secret weapon in the making of a wine that has the ability to live beyond a year or two.

A final warning, however: Some Petite Sirahs are so unforgivingly tannic when young that they are hard to consume young.

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